Beyond his bulging eyes and deep baritone voice, Rodney Dangerfield hid multiple secrets, heartbreaks, and a passion to get respect. Dive deep into these wild facts about a man who used comedy as camouflage.
In 1921, Jacob Rodney Cohen—also known as Rodney Dangerfield—joined a Jewish family as the son of a vaudeville performer Philip Cohen and Dorothy "Dotty" Teitelbaum. Little Dangerfield didn’t have much of a strong father figure in his life because Mr.Cohen was always on stage, rarely coming home to spend time with his son. Sadly, his mother wasn't much better.
It was clear that Dangerfield had daddy issues, but his cruel mother wasn't interested in making him feel better. In his childhood, Mrs. Cohen was always incredibly distant towards him; He reported that she didn’t kiss him or hug him, even once. So Dangerfield started to seek affection from someone else, and that sent him down a terrifying path.
In an interview with Howard Stern, Dangerfield disclosed something very disturbing. He said that during his childhood, he had an arrangement with a man. Not knowing any better, Dangerfield let this man kiss him for five minutes in exchange for a nickel.
If you connect the dots, you can understand that he really needed the money.
It was only a matter of time before Philip Cohen abandoned his family. After he had left and Dangerfield was the only man remaining, he felt an obligation to look after his mother and his sister. So while he was in high school, he learned to multitask. He worked several jobs such as delivering groceries or selling newspapers.
He had no time for his true calling until he was 15—and when he found it, it changed everything…even his name.
In 1936, Dangerfield began to write and do stand-up comedy at a tiny resort in New York. Apparently, his first act as a comedian was to change his name—he let go of the name Jacob Rodney Cohen and replaced it with...Jack Roy (doesn't quite have the same oomph as "Rodney Dangerfield" if you ask me). Unfortunately, the name didn’t magically transform the pumpkin into a carriage.
Whether it was performing as a singing waiter or stand-up comedy, Dangerfield was failing miserably. During his teenage years, he was on the verge of bankruptcy, yet he never gave up on stand-up comedy. He literally turned into the sad, struggling clown who put a smile on everyone’s faces but himself.
Luckily, someone was about to cheer him up for good.
In his early twenties, Dangerfield met a charismatic singer named Joyce Indig at one of his showbiz hangouts. He was totally clueless, but this woman would end up changing his life. He was so in love with her that he gave up his dream. As he put it, “Love is more important, you see. When the show is over, you’re alone”. He never wanted to be alone, so he stepped up.
His career was on a downhill slope, but his love life was miraculous—so Dangerfield held onto his lovely girlfriend tight, and he didn’t waste any time tying the knot. The two decided to start a family, drop out from the craziness of show business, and lead a normal life. And that was that...right?
In the blink of an eye, Dangerfield had a young family of three—they had a lovely son called Brian Roy. There were more mouths to feed, and Dangerfield was determined to man up and provide for his family, unlike his dad. He was ready to work multiple jobs or move to the suburbs even though this meant saying goodbye to his comedy career.
He thought he'd found his own happily-ever-after—but he couldn't have been more wrong.
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For 12 years, Dangerfield traded his microphone for aluminum—so that he would become a salesman. The business was good and he even managed to own his own home improvement business in Long Island, yet all he could think about was his failed venture.
With his famous self-deprecating attitude, he once said, “At the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit”. He couldn’t seem to get over this failure. Soon, he was following in his father's footsteps—in more ways than one.
Perhaps no matter how we try not to have the same history as our parents, we can’t help it. That was the case for Dangerfield. He thought he could live a button-down existence—but he was wrong. Eventually, he divorced his wife and moved back to the big city to hustle for a career on stage. In the early 1960s, he worked really hard to revive his career. But the more he tried, the more he broke down.
Dangerfield spent his time in Southeast New York, where he did stand-up comedy at various hotels. His minimal success accompanied maximum spending—he suddenly found himself $20,000 in debt. Desperate to work, he started playing in clubs that were so far out, as he put it, one of his acts was reviewed in an American magazine for hunting and fishing.
This was the last piece of quiet before the storm.
Sick of being shunned and fired, Dangerfield had a revelation: He was obviously desperate, so why fight it? Why not make it part of the joke? Based on this ideology, he developed himself a stage persona—an unfortunate, self-deprecating man who can't seem to catch a break. It was a gold mine for new material…there was just one problem.
Jack Roy just wasn't cutting it. He needed a new name.
This new character needed a new name, so "Jack Roy" took inspiration from another legendary comedian: Jack Benny. Some years earlier, Benny had played a cowboy with the name "Rodney Dangerfield" on his radio show. With a name that good, no tweaks are needed. Rodney Dangerfield, the self-deprecating comedian was born.
But as this new chapter in his life began, an old one came back to haunt him.
In 1963, an old fling resurfaced. Either the ex-wife came crawling back to Dangerfield’s doorstep, or it was the other way around. Regardless, Dangerfield remarried his ex, Joyce Indig. Their marriage had gone up in flames once, but the pair decided they wanted to give it another go. But neither of them was prepared for what was coming next.
In March 1967, while Dangerfield still jumping from gig to gig, he received an invite to fill in as a last-minute replacement. But this wasn't for some rinky-dink open mic. This was for The Ed Sullivan Show. Making a name for yourself there could change a comedian's life forever. And on his big night, Dangerfield did something almost impossible...
During his bit in the show, Dangerfield managed to make Ed Sullivan laugh. Now this might not seem like a big thing if you don’t know Sullivan, but if you do, you’d know that this was an exceptional achievement. Despite the stars who appeared on his show, very few people ever provoked such a reaction from him. Right on the spot, Dangerfield was hired to be part of the show. Everything was about to change.
Although the Dangerfield family didn’t yet have financial stability, Dangerfield’s new gig put him on the map. If he continued to do what he was doing, he'd become a star in no time. With this new confidence, he and his wife decided to have another baby—this time, a girl named Melanie joined the family.
Life was good, but Dangerfield wanted better.
Dangerfield wanted to travel less and perform more—more than that, he wanted a place of his own. That’s why he teamed up with a friend called Anthony Bevacque and the two opened Dangerfield’s, a comedy club in Manhattan's Upper East Side. From 1969 to 2020 this venue hosted a cavalcade of future comedy stars, from Jerry Seinfeld to Roseanne Barr.
Suddenly, the struggling comedian...wasn't exactly struggling anymore. Yet this newfound fame came at a terrible price.
As Dangerfield's career took off, his second-time-round marriage fell apart. Within a year of his club opening, his wife filed for divorce for the second time. Tragically, just a few years later, she passed, leaving Dangerfield his kids' sole parent—but he was not about to abandon them like his dad did to him. The family settled in New York for good, and he was ready for the big leagues.
In 1975, Dangerfield made yet another iconic performance, this time on Saturday Night Live. It was like a match made in heaven. He was already famous, but his SNL appearances took him to the next level. His self-deprecating humor, red tie, and wide eyes became iconic. His stage persona was getting so iconic that soon, it began to mesh together with his real personality in a devastating way.
Dangerfield once said that “comedy is a camouflage for depression” and he was not mistaken. Even though he had been suffering from depression and low self-esteem, he started to hit rock bottom in terms of his mental health as he got “no respect” from the audience who only saw a man who made fun of himself.
But mental health was just one part of Dangerfield's battle. He had an even tougher demon to face.
No one knows exactly what causes Graves' disease, but we know that the symptoms include sleeping problems, a fast heartbeat, and of course, the bulging of the eye. Dangerfield owed his iconic eyes to this disease, and the other symptoms likely exacerbated his depression.
Maybe this was the case, maybe he just needed somebody to talk to—either way, that somebody was just around the corner.
As of 1980, Dangerfield was living with a group of misfits—a housekeeper, a poodle Keno, and his closest friend named Joe Ancis. Dangerfield was content because he was living with Ancis, whom he called, “the funniest man in the world”. But, like with so many comedians, there was darkness hiding not far beneath the surface.
In comedy circles, people knew Joe Ancis—he was a great influence on comedians like Dangerfield and Lenny Bruce. However, he wasn't always a barrel of laughs. Roseanne once said he was “too psychologically damaged to be able to live in a germ-infested world on his own", which is why he lived with Dangerfield. Is that a roommate red flag or what?
Setting aside the roommate and the dog, Dangerfield went for a quick career change. In 1980, he released a comedy album—and it won a freakin Grammy. It seemed like everything he touched turned into gold at this point, and he wanted to get the most out of it. He had a TV special musical number, so he thought, why not add in a couple of songs and make another album?
Three years later, Dangerfield launched another album using the musical numbers from his TV special, and it became a hot rap record! “Rappin Rodney” ended up being one of the first rap songs to hit the Hot 100 (sad but true). One thing is for sure: No one could stop Rodney Dangerfield. He kept shattering his ceiling and at this point, no one could keep track of what he was going to do next.
Dangerfield spent his entire life resenting the father who walked out on him. But, as he got older, he finally felt like it was time to bury the hatchet. He reached out to reconnect with his father—but their reunion was more heartbreaking than he could have imagined.
Dangerfield's father may have abandoned his family, but it filled him with guilt and shame for decades. When the two had their father-and-son moment, he broke down completely. Through tears, he begged Dangerfield for forgiveness. He wanted to make amends—and luckily, his son was a sensitive, forgiving person.
After hashing it out with his dad, Dangerfield could finally move on from his childhood traumas. The fact that he was a superstar probably didn't hurt matters either.
By 1980, after decades of struggle, Dangerfield had completely transformed into a superstar who did everything—especially with the performance he gave in the golf comedy Caddyshack. Initially, he had a small part as the “obnoxious nouveau riche property developer,” but he charmed his way into a greater role.
The movie was an enormous hit, and Dangerfield was a standout. Somehow, he wasn't even at the top of the mountain yet.
Dangerfield had become a household name—and he knew how to use it. According to a friend, one day when he was in Los Angeles, he suddenly did something insane: He jumped into the middle of an extremely busy street. He said that he didn’t want to “walk all the way to the crosswalk,” so he decided to take a shortcut. What happened next was like a scene from an old movie.
When his friend warned Dangerfield, he replied, “I’m a draw” as he stopped the traffic. Reportedly, people got angry at first, but when they realized it was Dangerfield, their faces changed and the screams of “We love you Rodney” started to sound like an orchestra. Dangerfield merely waved back and continued his daily walk in peace. Does that sound like someone who doesn't get no respect?
That year, on one of his daily walks, Dangerfield came across something he never expected—love at first sight. While he strolled past a flower shop in Santa Monica, he spotted a flower girl named Joan Child. Smitten, Rodney started stopping by the shop daily to make conversation with this lovely blondie. The rest was history…well, not at first.
Joan Child knew exactly who Rodney Dangerfield was when he came into her shop. She recalled, “Suddenly there he was, walking towards me, the funniest man in the world”. But she soon discovered he was no Prince Charming. He was terrible at flirting—he would ask unexpected questions like “What kind of substances you like” or “What planet are you from”.
Yet despite this, the two found a connection—despite one very obvious issue.
The rumors began as soon as people learned the age difference between Child and Dangerfield—and hey, 30 years is a long time. Even though the much, much younger Child said that “it was love at first sight, the Holy Grail of encounters,” plenty of people believed something sketchy was going on…and the rumors would never go away. They would come back to haunt the couple before long.
If Joan Child was a golddigger, she sure was patient. In 1993, approximately ten years after Dangerfield and Child began dating, the two decided to exchange vows. Joan Child became Joan Dangerfield, and Rodney Dangerfield became the happiest man ever, at least as happy as a man with severe depression can be.
Although Mrs. Dangerfield was a huge factor in his battle with mental health, he had another helper.
According to Mrs. Dangerfield, her husband “tried various antidepressants, eventually finding a combination of medicine and therapy that was effective on a consistent basis”. However, none of these medicines were as helpful as marijuana, Dangerfield's trusted friend. He even obtained approval from his doctor.
Sadly, even Mary Jane wouldn’t help him get over this certain incident.
Just as he was getting back on his feet, Dangerfield's world turned upside down with some bitter news: He lost his best friend, his longtime roommate Joe Ancis. Dangerfield and Ancis lived together until Ancis's passing in 2001. Obviously, the loss of such a close friend is going to be hard on anyone—but it almost cost Dangerfield his life.
Dangerfield was so heartbroken about his friend that his body produced a sad reaction. On his 80th birthday, Dangerfield joined the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. He got up on stage, but while he was doing his stand-up, Leno noticed that there was something alarming about him.
As Jay Leno called Rodney to sit down, he also called the paramedics. He couldn't help but notice that Dangerfield was sweating profusely, and that his delivery wasn't quite right. After initial treatment, paramedics rushed him to the hospital because there seemed to be a problem with his heart. In fact, the next day, doctors confirmed that Dangerfield had a mild heart attack. Happy 80th birthday Rodney!
As you can imagine, the doctors didn’t want Dangerfield to go home immediately, so he had to stay at the hospital for a while. Dangerfield, who was accustomed to being busy, got bored first and got depressed later. As he usually did, he rolled some grass and enjoyed his stay—which disturbed the hospital staff.
On the other hand, Jay Leno’s team was already prepping for how to turn this incident into a show.
Exactly a year after suffering from a heart attack, Dangerfield returned to the scene of the crime: The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. His performance on his 81st birthday became an instant classic. But while it was a sweet moment, his comeback didn’t last very long.
By 2003, Dangerfield’s health was deteriorating and he had multiple surgeries lined up. First, he needed brain surgery...just so that he could survive another surgery. On the far side of 80, Dangerfield wasn't exactly a spring chicken, and the outlook didn't look great. On a warm April morning, Dangerfield underwent this surgery. What happened next was vintage Rodney Dangerfield.
After the hazardous brain surgery, this 82-year-old comedian woke up perfectly. He was feeling so good that when he gained consciousness, he made a hilarious request. He wanted to watch the Jerry Springer Show. Maybe that first surgery gave him confidence, because when the day of his second surgery came, Dangerfield was upbeat and cheerful.
In 2004, Dangerfield had surgery booked at the UCLA Medical Center. Upon entering the medical center, people asked him about the surgery and how long he would stay there. That's when Dangerfield delivered his last joke ever: "If all goes well, about a week. If not, about an hour and a half".
On August 25, after an exhausting heart valve replacement surgery, doctors had some difficult news to report. There was no funny one-liner and pot smoke this time: Dangerfield had slipped into a coma, and it didn't look good. His long list of friends and acquaintances was devastated by the news. Some even came to see him one last time.
Dangerfield’s buddy Leno went down to the hospital to keep him company in his last days. When he went into the room, Dangerfield’s wife was there—she approached Leno and said, “He can’t respond, but I think he can hear us. Put your finger in Rodney’s hand”. Right then and there, Leno bid his farewell with what he did.
Mrs. Dangerfield and Leno wanted to know what Dangerfield could understand and respond to. When they asked him whether he knew Leno was there, he squeezed Leno’s finger. At that point, Leno whispered, "That wasn't my finger," and Dangerfield allegedly gave another squeeze. As Leno put it, "If you’re a comic, you’d get it. I got to make Rodney laugh right before he passed”.
This wholesome moment was one of Dangerfield’s last ones–but as for the jokes, they kept coming.
October 5, 2004, was the last day of Dangerfield—but it's almost like he was ready. At the time, he had a website that posted a randomly selected joke of his every single day. That day, this is what went up: "I tell ya I get no respect from anyone. I bought a cemetery plot. The guy said, 'There goes the neighborhood'". This joke inspired Mrs. Dangerfield to choose the most iconic epitaph and the ceremony.
Because of this joke, Mrs. Dangerfield chose the line "There goes the neighborhood" for Dangerfield’s headstone. In addition to that, she organized an event where all the guests would release a butterfly in a ceremony where a special word would be emblazoned in the sky.
That special word was none other than “respect”. At least in the very end, Dangerfield got the respect he deserved.
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